IN ARCHITECTURE, there have been more than a few challengers to the title of “Master Builder” since Peter Blake’s book of the same title on Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright was published more than 50 years ago.
But for whatever reason, none of those challengers are, in the traditional sense of the word, a master builder: someone who embodies craft and precision, someone who views construction not merely as a register of cultural expression, but as an artifact that defines the culture itself.
None save Peter Zumthor — the Swiss architect who first apprenticed as a cabinetmaker, studied in Basel and New York, and then worked as surveyor before establishing his practice in the small Swiss town of Haldenstein in 1979.
Now, more than 35 years later, after building a series of revered and highly regarded cultural and social institutions in Switzerland, after expanding his body of work to include projects across Europe, after receiving the Pritzker Prize, the Praemium Imperiale, the RIBA Royal Gold Medal, and many of the highest accolades in the profession, Peter Zumthor seems to be at a new juncture in his career. Following a 12-year professorship at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio and teaching stints that include Harvard Graduate School of Design and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC) here in Los Angeles, Zumthor has retreated from academia to focus on his practice. This practice remains relatively small — he employs just 30 associates. He remains rooted in the Swiss tradition of building, but as Zumthor expands into new territories, new geographies, and new cultures, they will inevitably test the role context plays in his architecture.
Among these new ventures, perhaps the most intriguing and most scrutinized is his design of the new building for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in part because it coincides with this very interesting time in the architect’s career. Many have challenged the logic of a Swiss building in Los Angeles, asking whether his revered precision will translate given the economics of American construction. Others ask whether his monastic aesthetic will make sense in the image-driven landscape of Los Angeles and, more specifically, whether his architectural language of sublime asceticism will respond to the city’s very diverse urban context. Even more inflammatory critics have suggested that he lacks adequate experience in buildings of this scale. In a sense, all of the criticisms can be boiled down to a single accusation: quality architecture does not belong in Los Angeles.
Since his “Shelters for Roman Archaeological Site” in Chur in 1985–86, Zumthor has occupied a central position in contemporary architecture. In edifices from the Thermal Baths in Vals (1996) to the Kunsthaus Bregenz (1997) to the Kolumba Art Museum in Cologne (2007), or small gems like the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion in London (2011) and the Bruder Klaus Chapel (2007), Zumthor has become known for his alchemical ability to transform the common materials of wood, stone, and concrete into the surprisingly refined vivacity of a musical instrument.
In the Kolumba Art Museum, Zumthor created a building that incorporated ruins of a Gothic church, an octagonal chapel, and Roman foundations. Sitting directly on top of the remaining Gothic church walls, the new walls are built out of light gray bricks in the slender dimensions of Roman construction. In certain areas the walls are perforated, with the bricks spaced apart so that dappled light penetrates the interior, double-height space. Through his mastery of the proportion and application of materials, Zumthor manages to produce a simultaneous duality of weight and light in the museum, which, however well depicted through photographs, can only be truly understood in situ.
This duality is again demonstrated in the Bruder Klaus Field Chapel in Mechernich. Consisting of a five-sided room with a towering height and a triangular door, the small chapel evokes a powerful spiritual atmosphere through the contrast in materials. The charred indentations left from the timber formwork underscore the walls’ solidity, while artisanal handblown glass pieces twinkle in the small holes left by the process of construction.
The effect of Zumthor’s work consistently stems from the pulse between opposite effects or contrasting elements. This same pulse makes it extremely difficult to predict what the architect may propose next. Zumthor’s consistency is one of his architecture’s qualities — amplified through the tectonic integrity with which his designs are realized — without peddling his previously successful techniques to later projects. His buildings are unpredictable and yet predictably rich in material and spatial quality. In fact, if one must locate a commonality across all of Zumthor’s projects, it would be the impact of the work itself: his buildings possess the rare ability to awe the beholder during each subsequent encounter as dramatically as they do on the first. Unlike the picturesque or the formally acrobatic, they ask for active involvement from the user, they command presence and full attention.
Unlike Tadao Ando or Richard Meier, Zumthor does not have a recognizable signature style. Unlike the work of Rem Koolhaas, Zumthor’s work doesn’t beg to be deciphered but, rather, pleads to be experienced, to be infused with life by the vital presence of the subject. Unlike the work of Zaha Hadid, Zumthor’s projects do not indulge in visual razzle-dazzle but slowly reveal their power to those who give the architecture a bit of time and consideration.
Unlike many of his Pritzker contemporaries, whose careers have accelerated at a meteorite’s pace in the last few decades, Zumthor has remained a perennial outsider who produces quietly subversive work. He belongs to an order of architects — he is not alone in this — who eschew the fast track and are extremely selective about the projects they undertake. You won’t see billboards advertising Zumthor concert halls in Saudi Arabia, though undoubtedly he’s been asked. Always in increasing demand, he employs immense restraint in both design and in accepting new work. This business practice combined with his exceptional taste has made his architecture some of the most sought-after in the world.
Los Angeles has a rare opportunity to collaborate with Peter Zumthor through the project at LACMA. As a global city, with its own architects practicing internationally, its world-class art museum deserves to have the best architect, regardless of nationality and origins, to design its next building.
Frank Gehry once remarked that he would not accept a project unless the client was a person he could relate to and who could make decisions. The relationship between the architect and the client can make or break a project, even in a project for a public institution. Great designs require both healthy dialogue and trust within this most intimate relationship, and design by committee can be the greatest threat to a good building.
Michael Govan, the director of LACMA, began to develop his relationship with Zumthor many years ago while they collaborated on the unbuilt I Ching Gallery for Walter de Maria at Dia:Beacon. It was undoubtedly this positive history that led Govan to hire the Swiss architect again, and the final built design will benefit from this history between client and architect. A great building demands a great client who is educated in the architect’s oeuvre, and a great client deserves a great architect — the mutual expertise works in service of the project.
Zumthor’s controversial design for the new building replaces the agglomeration of William Pereira’s original complex at LACMA. The addition will become the focal point of the museum’s grounds, which will include the existing Broad Contemporary Art Museum, the Resnick Pavilion, and the Pavilion for Japanese Art. Together with the Page Museum, the future Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and the La Brea Tar Pits, the campus has evolved historically as a collection or cluster of object-buildings in an open park landscape.
Zumthor’s current scheme offers visitors an experience to view the museum’s collection of art on a single exhibition level elevated above ground level, supported by a series of massive volumes. The sporadic placement of these structural supports allows the park and city to flow beneath the building, and the scheme’s decidedly horizontal form echoes the wide horizon of the sky. Elevated as a canopy, the museum will warmly envelop the public space of the park like a piece of freeway infrastructure. Within the building, oblique panoramic views of the city beyond will be folded into the narrative journey through the galleries, promising that each visit to the museum will juxtapose the dynamic landscape of Los Angeles with the exhibits as part of the visitors’ experience. And vice versa, Angelenos will be offered fragmentary views into and through the building from the streets and surrounding park. In contrast, the atmosphere of the galleries will surely maintain Zumthor’s mastery of light and proportion and elevate the viewers’ experience of works of art in unexpected ways.
The building’s shape has been the focus of much of the design criticism — beginning as an organic amoeba, it has been described as a giant flower, a Hans Arp, a literally oozing tar pit, and most recently, a calligraphic character. But at the building’s immense scale, the shape will seldom be visible as such. From street level, from adjacent buildings, and even from the building’s interior, the building’s form will read simply as an undulating panorama. Its scale offers something akin to Cesar Pelli’s Pacific Design Center or the nearby Beverly Center, which both operate as cultural cathedrals in lieu of disguising themselves within an elusive vernacular. Contextualism in Los Angeles requires more innovation than matching roof heights or aligning cornices; its ecology is one of large and oversized cultural objects that act as signposts amid sprawl.
Once constructed, Zumthor’s LACMA will offer a gestalt characterized by its mass and surfaces rather than by its full shape, as the limits of its form stretch beyond the extent of human peripheral vision. Still, the work’s conceptual beginning as a series of pavilions in the landscape betray the integral human scale embedded even in Zumthor’s large-scale works, no doubt a consequence of his careful expectation of the eventual user. The galleries in his proposal for LACMA break down the massive panorama into six discrete trapezoidal spaces rendered in white concrete and lit from above. The traces of his architecture’s construction methods, which often remain as details in his finished spaces, also convey a texture and immediacy from the architect’s hand to its eventual beholder.
This human scale in fact often comes through most strongly in his use of materials. Behind the seemingly stark exterior of his Homes for Senior Citizens in Chur, for instance, a limestone and wood-lined interior “street” radiates warmth at the entry to each resident’s unit. Now rendered simply in a palette of dark and light concrete and glass, the detailing and material finishes will be where Zumthor’s LACMA comes to fruition.
Zumthor’s design holds much promise: loyal to the context but assertive alongside the other strong object-buildings on the museum’s existing campus.
In his chronicle of the “Master Builder,” Peter Blake writes:
Le Corbusier, Mies, and Wright will ultimately appear more important than their contemporaries because they were greater as artists. All three had a sort of poetic vision of the world they lived in, and, in trying to give form to this poetic vision, they often advanced farther and more daringly than their more rational fellows, who were handicapped by the more prosaic limitations of the moment.
Zumthor has proven himself a master builder not only because he has the poetic vision Blake describes, but also because he advances his vision very carefully, with restraint, so that his vision is not diluted in any discord between the architecture, the client, and the site, nor compromised by preternatural ambitions for greatness.
His sensibility may be new to this city, which has long harbored a lion’s share of architecture characterized by a penchant for complexity. Indeed, Zumthor’s design will not immediately come across as balancing the many sometimes contradictory ambitions weighing on LACMA’s expansion, but it will mitigate them all the same. In a sense, the ease with which he conveys this type of balance suits Los Angeles perfectly; it is the discipline with which he manages the resolution that may be unfamiliar to us, so used to buildings that wear contradictions on their sleeves rather than cloaked in a well tailored lining.
Zumthor’s scheme will evolve. Some phases of that evolution may be popular, and others less so, but regardless of popularity, the architect’s portfolio of work must stand for something. Images, as becomes clear for anyone who has experienced his built work, will not tell the whole story. Angelenos will have to learn to trust and respect that expertise until a time when they can step inside the museum he’s designed for their city and see it for themselves. As a master builder, Zumthor has tacitly acknowledged his willingness to undertake the long and often difficult pursuit historically demanded by practice and discipline alike. The fact that this significant project, underway during the most august chapter in Zumthor’s career, promises a serious re-examination of the legacies of the European building tradition, in the context of the sunny, seemingly freewheeling sprawl of Los Angeles, should be celebrated as a great gift to our maturing city.
The authors would like to thank Mary Casper for her editorial assistance on this piece.
Sharon Johnston and Mark Lee are the principals of Johnston Marklee, an award-winning architecture firm.